My exploration into sushi all started with a query from Ellen Bayens of The Celiac Scene: knowing that rice vinegar used to make sushi rice can contain barley, should we stop referring people to Japanese restaurants?
Good question, so I started visiting sushi restaurants asking to see the ingredient list on their sushi vinegar. I was offered lots of samples of vinegar (not my thing at all) but I did eventually get to read the ingredient list on a lot of boxes of vinegar. I didn’t find ANY samples that listed barley in the ingredient list. [Note: Communication can be a huge problem in sushi restaurants. Staff at these restaurants come from a variety of countries, not just Japan.]
What I did find was a lot of sushi vinegars containing distilled white vinegar and other flavourings. I also found some that listed rice vinegar as the only ingredient. I wondered if this circular references was legal, so I asked the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. There is a labelling exemption for “grain vinegars” as long as they are distilled. In this case, the grain is rice. Even if barley was used to start the rice fermentation, the distillation would have removed any potential barley protein, making the vinegar safe for people with celiac disease.
So I crossed vinegar off the list of things to worry about. While it is possible that chefs in a high end (read expensive) restaurants use rice vinegar containing barley, the vast majority do not seem to do so.
At the same time, however, there were a number of discussions about sushi in various Facebook forums I frequent, where members pointed out a number of ingredients found in sushi of much greater concern:
- Assume all soy sauce contains wheat unless you read otherwise on the bottle. The best option is to bring your own. Watch out for other sauces that may contain soy sauce or gluten, such as oyster, fish, teriyaki and tamari sauces. Some will be gluten free, but other brands may not be.
- Crab in sushi is often fake crab made of surimi, made from pollock, flavouring and a starch, most often wheat starch or flour. Scallop may also be imitation.
- Tamago, the thin egg omelette, may contain gluten from soy sauce.
- Tobiko, coloured fish roe, may contain gluten from soy sauce.
- Eel and vegetables may be marinated with a sauce containing gluten from soy sauce.
- Mugicha tea is made from barley.
- Wasabi paste may contain wheat starch, although wasabi itself is GF.
- Miso paste (used for miso soup) often contains gluten.
- Keep an eye out for rolls with panko bread crumbs or tempura flakes.
- A restaurant may claim to have a GF tempura batter, but make sure it is not cooked in a shared fryer.
- Ask the sushi chef to wears wear clean gloves and assemble items on a clean work surface before making your sushi to minimize the risk of cross-contamination.
This may sound like a daunting list of things to avoid, but sushi-loving friends tell me there are a lot of healthy options for someone who eats gluten free. If you are reluctant to try it on your own, pair up with an experienced sushi eater who can explain the lingo to you.
Sue Newell, with assistance from Ellen Bayans and Mark Johnson.